Earlier this year I traveled to Belize to attend the Belize Tourism Exchange (BETEX) conference, sponsored by the Belize Tourism Board (BTB). Following the conference I joined a small group of media traveling around the country. One of our many stops was the small beach town of Placencia, so I wanted to write a little bit more about it.
Before I talk about Placencia, however, I ought to explain a few things about Belize, a country that is in fact shared by two separate regions. Located in Central America, it is also part of the Western Caribbean Zone. The result is an incredibly diverse community. Kriols, descendants of colonial-era Caribbean and African slaves, make up 21 percent of residents. They live side-by-side with the modern-day descendants of the Mayan civilization that flourished here between 1500 B.C. and 800 A.D.
There are also several communities of Garifuna in Belize. They are the descendants of the Carib, Arawak and West African people. The Garifuna have their own language, cuisine and music. The official language of Belize is English, although Kriol and Spanish are more widely spoken.
Placencia is located on a tiny sliver of peninsula pointing out from Belize’s southeast coast. Unlike other parts of the country, there are very few docks extending out from the town’s shoreline. The result is miles of uninterrupted views of the Caribbean and plenty of long stretches for walking.
Placencia’s main street is like those of many small beachfront towns, sleepy and sunny during the day, with an occasional SUV, Jeep or golf cart rambling by, and a handful of local residents strolling into and out of small stores and wood houses as they go about their daily business. No building is itself remarkable, but almost all seem charming in some way.
The town is actually a larger version of what 30 years ago was an obscure fishing village. The main street now has a sidewalk that leads to a few cozy-looking boutique hotels. The still very small downtown features a handful of restaurants and bars including Rum Fish y Vino, a magnificent "gastro-bar" offering local draft beers, and classic comfort foods with a Belizean twist.
Our group dined here one night on the open-air terrace. I admit that with the assistance of some very good wine we gradually grew somewhat giddy and probably a bit loud. We joked and laughed as the warm evening air rippled with what we thought were peals from a goat. Later one of the locals explained to us that we were hearing a frog.
In between Placencia’s main street and the beachfront, running parallel to both, is a sandy interior street, almost an alley without the customary walls at either side. Some locals had set up small trinket stands tended by decidedly non-aggressive merchants. One alley is lined with small hotels and condominiums, and neat but weather-beaten hand-painted wooden signs with sayings like “Judge a person by the contents [sic] of his character, not the colour of his skin” and “Solve half the world problems: keep your religion & sex life in the bedroom.”
We passed our brief stay at the Belizean Nirvana Hotel, a small but upscale seaside property. Belizean Nirvana offers five individually furnished suites and studios, with wide verandas separated by lattice partitions. Each veranda comes equipped with a hammock and garden chairs. The hotel also is equipped with what is described as the first elevator in Placencia, which management says is for guests who need assistance to reach the hotel’s second floor roof deck.
The roof deck is worth an elevator ride. It provides a sweeping, unobstructed view of the Caribbean and is one of the best spots in town from which to watch the sunset. The owners invited our group up for cocktails and we sat together chatting as the sun melted into the horizon in blue and purple colors.
I was happy to learn the owners and I once lived in the same area of Brooklyn, N.Y. We discussed how much the old neighborhood had changed and they later gave us an informal listing of the best lunch restaurants in town, after informing us that lunch is the most important meal of the day for Belize residents.
The next morning we headed to the Splash Dive Center for a day of snorkeling at Laughing Bird Caye National Park, a protected area and World Heritage Site. It’s one of the several islands off the Placencia coast where visitors and locals can embark on enjoy exotic day trips and romantic overnight visits.
As we selected our gear and prepared for the excursion, we were entertained by a musical Garifuna family, which provided us with a seemingly endless serenade of joyful and rhythmic songs and dances. I took a lot of pictures.
Later we boarded a powerboat for a half-hour ride to reach the beach. There we snorkeled in crystal clear waters around a narrow island of clean white sand. Later we had a barbecue lunch while the Garifuna entertainers, who seemed to suddenly appear on the island, continued their serenade.
The next day we boarded a Tropic Air flight to visit another part of Belize. Looking back, those other sections certainly had their own surprises and character. But I won’t soon forget the little town with the big view of the Caribbean and the frogs that sound like goats.
Brian Major is executive editor covering Caribbean and Latin America for TravelPulse.com.